National Post article on David Colquhoun

Charles Lewis of the National Post caught up with David Colquhoun last week during the Royal Society member’s brief stop in Toronto. Colquhoun discusses his view that we are living in an age of Endarkenment; we have moved away from the honest, rational, open-minded and inquisitive ideals of the Enlightenment, and have come to increasingly purvey and protect dogma and irrationality.

Colquhoun is a staunch antogonist of homeopathy, is highly skeptical of herbal medicines, and believes that the academic community is compromised by the corporatization of universities.

The central tenet of homeopathy is that the more dilute a so-called healing substance (e.g., an herb or flower), the more potent it becomes. Colquhoun exclaims that this idea is ‘completely nuts’. “It’s like if you want to get really drunk you dilute your beer in Lake Superior. Who could possibly believe that?”

Colquhoun asserts that there is no empirical evidence for the efficacy of herbal medicines. Last summer, his out-spoken skepticism with respect to one particular herbal product landed him into a brief legal and political situation that probably had him popping a few Advils. By publicly opposing the claims of a pair of herbalists who had claimed that red clover was a blood cleanser on his blog Improbable Science, Colquhoun would become what Charles Lewis described as a free-expression martyr.

“I said that the term ‘blood cleanser’ doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s just gobbledegook. And they got very cross about this. You can say what you like on the Web about George Bush or Tony Blair and you don’t get into trouble. But upset some herbalists and you get legal action heaped on your head,” Colquhoun explains.

The result of Colquhoun’s critical blogging was a threat of legal action from the herbalists directed at University College London, the host server of Colquhoun’s blog. Fearful, UCL had the blog removed from the server. Within mere days letters poured in from outraged scientists from around the world, decrying UCL for succumbing to the baseless legal threat at the expense of a number of the core values of the academic community, namely academic freedom, freedom of expression, and the defense of truth and honesty. Within a few weeks UCL reversed its decision, offering to reinstate Improbable Science. Colquhoun declined the offer and has since hosted the blog on another server.

Colquhoun is displeased by the establishment of degree programs in alternative medicine at 16 British universities. During his presentation at the University of Toronto this past Friday, he expressed similar displeasure at the establishment of such programs at a number of North American universities. He once referred to a BSc in homeopathic medicine as “world-class meaningless bollocks”.

As Lewis writes, Colquhoun’s peeves stretch well beyond the bounds of alternative medicine. “He believes we are now living in the Endarkenment, having replaced Enlightenment with “dogma and irrationality””. He speaks of belief in homeopathy, religion, and the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as being a product of deluded, dishonest and wishful thinking, not rational and honest thinking.

Irrationality and dishonesty has even encroached upon the university community, according to Colquhoun. Colquhoun is troubled by a new form of university management, called managerialism. The idea behind managerialism is that all organizations are essentially alike, and thus can be run in similar ways.

“People now seem to think universities will be better if they’re organized like Wal-Mart. The result is a removal of power over the management of science from the people who are involved in science. I think as soon as science is managed by non-scientists it becomes corrupt. They impose a kind of ubercompetitive regime on people, which actually encourages dishonesty.

“Scientists are not perfect, but they know something about science and consequently the best way to get good results is to leave it to scientists, not MBAs.”

Colquhoun believes that universities have two fundamental missions: to teach and to conduct research. He believes that the corporatization of universities can sometimes interfere with these core functions. The academic community is first and foremost about teaching and expanding the frontiers of human knowledge and ability, not generating profits. Colquhoun expanded on this issue at U of T on Friday. When control of teaching and research programs is wrestled away from departmental academic chairs and centralized at the faculty or university level (where administrators are often most concerned about securing the most research funding and ranking as high as possible on various research output measures, and probably know less about the esoteric concerns of particular departments and disciplines at particular times), and is further directed by the strategic interests of governments, industries and large corporations, the university community becomes less and less of a beacon for individual and societal intellectual development and more and more of an economic tool for government and private agencies.

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